Available on: Modern Love LP
There are some musicians who barely deviate from a core sound for a whole career, and others, like James Leyland Kirby, who try on and shed styles like many skins. Most famous for his irreverent ravaging of pop music as V/Vm and a series of haunting 78-sampling ambient albums as The Caretaker, Kirby is nothing if not prodigious in his output. But his dense discography – and no shortage of colourful biographical anecdotes – seems less significant when discussing his most enigmatic and amorphous project of all, The Stranger. The music released under this alias – the debut self-titled CD-R, the album Bleaklow, and now Watching Dead Empires in Decay – is best appreciated not in the context of Kirby’s other work, but on its own terms.
Watching Dead Empires In Decay may be monochromatic and morbid but it’s endlessly intriguing and swollen with emotion. Its collection of indefinable sounds – presumably processed field recordings and mauled samples, though it’s often difficult to tell – is mysterious rather than punishing, but still offers little by way of light or hope. Lightly clanking metallic percussion outlines the rhythm of ‘So Pale They Shone In The Night’, from which a gaseous hiss blooms and dissolves. Rather than deep, lonely kick drums, Kirby favours misty, barely-there beats. The arid tattoo of ‘Spiral Of Decline’ is decidedly sinister, describing an untold fear, the percussion on ‘Providence or Fate’ sounds like it was recorded from two rooms away, and delicate snares on ‘Ill Fares The Land’ are half-swallowed by a mulch of creaks and groans. Drums sound as though they’ve been exhumed from half-frozen earth rather than programmed, organic but not quite of this world.
Melodies emerge from dankness, ghostly things that never really reach resolution: a moody bassline in ‘Ill Fares The Land’ appears and dissipates; string figures paint a woeful picture on ‘Providence or Fate’ from beneath their thick blanket of nostalgic crackle, and ‘Where Are Our Monsters Now, Where Are Our Friends?’ pits a queasy synth and string line against one another, their timbres and the gloomy trip-hoppish beat containing echoes of ‘90s IDM that make this one of the more familiar-sounding songs on a largely alien record. ‘About To Enter A Strange New Period’ is a fitting closer: rustles and plangent notes describe a cold and desolate landscape. They progress nowhere, simply jostling in their own bizarre space, before concluding abruptly.
The song titles on Watching Dead Empires… alone ought to give you some indication of the album’s emotional theme: ‘We Scarcely See Sunlight’ and ‘Grey Day Drift’ are typical of the depths of pathos Kirby plumbs. It’s tempting to reach for Demdike Stare as contemporary analogues, but where they trade in brutality and industrial austerity, The Stranger’s music stirs to the surface a profound loneliness occasionally shot through with bittersweet nostalgia. Like the sounds themselves, emotional specifics are often hard to pinpoint, but the cloud of death that looms over everything is unmistakable.